Pellegrino Artusi, the protagonist of Malvaldi’s delightful story set in 1895, is a successful textile merchant with a serious passion for good food. When he meets the Barone di Roccapendente while taking the waters at an Italian spa, he receives an invitation to spend a weekend at the baron’s castle in the Tuscan countryside. Having travelled around Italy collecting and assembling recipes for his cookery book, Artusi is looking forward to a weekend of fine food and a boar hunt in the company of the baron.
Alongside the baron, the castle is inhabited by his three children, Gaddo, Lapo and Cecilia, his mother, Nonna Speranza, a couple of old spinsters and an assortment of household staff. As they await the arrival of the baron’s guest, we begin to get the measure of this family – squabbling and sniping are commonplace. With the exception of Cecilia, who is bright, kind and perceptive, the baron’s family are an eccentric bunch. Here’s Lapo, a vain, foolish and arrogant fellow, as he speculates about Artusi’s character:
“…A merchant who likes good food. He’s a man who accumulates. Money in the bank, and fat on his belly. You’ll see. They’ll have to call us to prise him out of the bathtub, assuming he knows how to use one.”
“What are you saying, Signorino Lapo?”
“It wouldn’t surprise me. He is from Emilia-Romagna, after all. Coarse people” – he bit off the end of his cigar and spat it out – “who think only about eating, working and accumulation possessions.” (pg. 9, MacLehose Press)
The baron’s eldest son, Gaddo, is prone to delusions of grandeur and foresees a promising future for himself as a famous poet. When Gaddo hears that a ‘first-rate man of letters’ will be arriving at the castle for the forthcoming boar hunt, he assumes it can be none other but Giosue Carducci, the ‘Great Poet’ and Gaddo’s idol. Consequently, the appearance of Pellegrino Artusi, a mere cookery writer, comes as a major blow to the baron’s eldest son:
‘It was enough to make on beat one’s head against the wall.’ (pg16)
Malvaldi’s writing is full of biting wit, and the narrative contains some wonderfully sharp observations on each of the principal players. In this scene, Artusi, following his arrival at the castle, joins the baron’s family for dinner:
The one eating listlessly was Gaddo, who might have the sensitivity of spirit to appreciate beauty but was now busy casting sidelong glances at the self-styled man of letters as the latter stuffed himself with pie, his white whiskers moving up and down in time to the rhythm of his jaws.
The one eating briskly and noisily was Lapo, who preferred beautiful things of flesh and blood rather than on walls, and was now watching his sister and thinking that if she didn’t dress like a penitent she might almost look like a woman, and then it might actually be possible to find her a husband and get her out of his hair – with that female arrogance of hers, she was always finding fault with him. (pg. 19)
I could continue, but you get the picture, I’m sure.
The story is punctuated by extracts from Artusi’s diary, which he pens at the end of each day; here’s an excerpt from the cookery writer’s musings on his first evening in the company of this rather idiosyncratic family:
The baron was as gracious as always, as if we were at Montecatini taking the waters; but over the rest of the family, if this were a letter and not a diary, it would be appropriate to draw a veil. One of the two sons, Gaddo, seems to hate me for no apparent reason. But at least he limits himself to sarcasm, which is more than can be said for his younger brother, who has accused me almost openly of being a usurer. As for the distaff side, the baron’s daughter is probably not a bad person, but I fear she is much too clever for the rest of the family, except perhaps for the dowager baroness, Speranza, who sends shivers down one’s spine at the mere sight of her; then there are the two old maids of the family – there always have to be old maids in these places… (pg. 31)
Artusi retires to bed hoping the atmosphere will improve during his stay, especially with the prospect of a boar hunt on the agenda. But the following day gets off to a dramatic start; the residents are awakened by a bloodcurdling scream as Nonna Speranza’s nurse discovers a body — that of the baron’s butler, Theodore — in the castle’s cellar. Having examined the butler’s body, the local doctor suspects foul play, and the police are called to the scene. At first, the attending inspector, Artistico, is irritated at being summoned by the doctor, and once again, Malvaldi adds a bitterly comic tone to the proceedings:
Ispettore Artistico’s first reaction when the doctor had sent for him had been one of annoyance. To tell the truth, the doctor had always rubbed him up the wrong way: firstly because he was a socialist, secondly because he was one of the most boring and pedantic people he had ever known, and last but certainly not least, because every time the inspector was out walking with his daughter and met the doctor, the doctor invariably kissed her hand in the most brazenly lecherous manner imaginable. More than once the inspector had been on the verge of cutting short this greeting by thrashing him with his stick. He had even imagined himself scalping the doctor and running off with his beard as a trophy. (pg. 52)
However, once the inspector surmises a murder may have been committed, he relishes the prospect of investigating a noteworthy case. At long last Artistico has a real murder on his hands – after all, his only other murder involved the killing of the baker’s donkey! That’s all I’m willing to give away about the plot, except to say there are a few unexpected (often hilarious) developments to come over the course of the investigation.
I loved The Art of Killing Well with its sparkling wit, sideswipes at the nobility and cast of eccentric characters. It’s a hugely enjoyable, playful story, and Malvaldi writes with much charisma and verve. There are several references to food and a sprinkling of Italian politics, too. Pellegrino Artusi was an Italian silk merchant and gastronome in real life, and he self-published his cookbook, Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well, in 1891. The Art of Killing Well finishes with a short series of Artusi’s recipes, and I was delighted to find more of his writing on my own bookshelves: Exciting Food for Southern Types by Pellegrino Artusi (published by Penguin Books).
I devoured The Art of Killing Well in a couple of sittings, and it left me craving a plate of wild boar washed down with a nice glass of Chianti Classico. An excellent book – highly recommended.
The Art of Killing Well is published in the UK by MacLehose Press. Source: review copy kindly provided by the publishers.